Former state Sen. Will Espero, local comedian Augie Tulba and military veteran Earl Tsuneyoshi are all looking to succeed Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor and represent a stretch of Central and West Oahu that includes Mililani, Waipahu and Ewa Beach.
The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 8 primary advance to the November general election unless a candidate wins outright by securing more than half of the vote.
Espero, a liberal Democrat who spent nearly 20 years in the Legislature, resigned from his Senate seat in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor — a race he lost. Toward the end of his statehouse tenure, he helped lead efforts to allow for medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii.
He was also a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform, pushing for more public disclosure and transparency on police misconduct that the Legislature did eventually pass this year. Espero said he would pursue that issue on the City Council, too — pushing to give the Honolulu Police Commission more authority.
Espero said he also wants to help bring a new film studio to District 9 — perhaps at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, Hoopili or Mililani Tech Park, he said. It’s not a new idea, he added, but it could happen now as the island’s economy looks to rebound from COVID-19.
Espero said he’s already talked to developers of the Hoopili residential project about a potential partnership to do it there.
He also proposed developing a local hemp industry, as well as research and development into medical marijuana, to better study its effects on different ailments.
“Tourism is still going to be our No. 1 industry for a long time. It’s not that simple as finding a replacement for tourism,” he said, adding that the island still needs to find alternatives.
Tsuneyoshi is a West Point graduate and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he spent 11 years on active duty in the Army and four years so far in the Hawaii National Guard.
In the Guard, he’s recently helped lead the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as current operations chief of the Guard’s joint task force on the virus. He was placed on active duty in late March, he said.
Oahu’s response to the pandemic would remain his top issue if elected to office, he said. State and county officials should be more decisive and follow a clear, agreed-upon framework in deciding when to lift restrictions, reopen businesses and send students back to school, he said.
Those standards should be clearly communicated to the public, Tsuneyoshi said. They could include thresholds where the lockdowns and restrictions would return, he added.
Specifically, he pointed to a color-coded framework for re-opening that the state issued in May.
“The framework is there. We just need to use it,” Tsuneyoshi said Friday. “It’s not use it ‘better.’ We need to use it.”
He said he had misgivings about “blanket closures” for certain industries, such as the city’s recent decision to shut down bars for another three weeks.
Tsuneyoshi is the brother-in-law of North Shore Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi.
He flagged rising crime as another top concern and why he’s running. He said he sees more locals buying weapons for self-protection and “that’s not the Hawaii we grew up in.”
“I just feel people aren’t getting held accountable in the court system,” he said.
“I don’t believe that we need to jump on the bandwagon with the mainland” in regards to the widespread calls for systemic police reform, he added. “I believe in general we’re different here” and that efforts against police misconduct should target the “outliers” who don’t follow the rules, Tsuneyoshi said.
He also wants to keep pushing to make Kapolei a “second city” and reduce commutes into town. The idea has been around for decades. Tsuneyoshi, however, said a review of the island’s master plan could make progress on that front.
Tulba, meanwhile, is known to many local residents as the popular comedian and media personality “Augie T.” He did not respond to requests for an interview with Civil Beat.
All three candidates have raised a fair amount of cash for their campaigns.
Filings show Tsuneyoshi and Espero nearly even in dollars raised and spent, as well as cash on hand for the final stretch.
The vast majority of Tsuneyoshi’s haul came before June 30, while Espero nearly doubled his war chest in the past month, those records show.
Tsuneyoshi spent more than $59,500 through July 28 and had more than $10,000 on hand. Espero spent nearly $62,000 during the same period and had more than $15,000 on hand.
Tsuneyoshi’s received support from several of the state’s key political players, including engineer Dennis Mitsunaga, a longtime political donor.
Jennifer Sabas, who served as chief of staff to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, also donated to Tsuneyoshi’s campaign, records show.
Tulba has raised more than $55,000 for the race, records show, but only $600 of that came in the past month. His campaign was running a deficit of more than $6,600 through July 28.
Some of Tulba’s notable donors include Lt. Gov. Josh Green — a Democrat — and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers Political Action Fund.
Espero has garnered support from political action committees for various trade unions, including the influential Hawaii Carpenters Political Action Fund. He’s also received money from the PACs for council members Brandon Elefante and Menor — the outgoing District 9 councilman.
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